Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part VIII

Bojidar Marinov continues to make wild claims, and the photo to the left is no exception.  One is abandoning duty and honor to assume that they are free of obligation in the church while they could just as easily help brothers and sisters in Christ by being a mature committed believer. This isn’t a matter of consumer choice or entrepreneurial activity. The Scriptures command us to encourage, exhort, serve, and love our brothers and sisters in Christ within the context of the local church community. There are just too many Scriptures to quote to make this plain, but Galatians 5:13 tells us “through love to serve one another.”

Matthew 23:8-12 has been invoked as a way to avoid ecclesiastical oversight and especially in light of Bojidar Marinov’s claims. However, “call no man father” doesn’t mean to never call a man father or even necessarily to avoid calling ministers fathers (though the Roman abuse here is strikingly similar to the charges Jesus laid down to the Pharisees). It also has nothing to do with getting rid of vocational ministry or going “Lone Ranger.” The phrase isn’t a new paradigm in terms of how mature believers should behave in relation to the church. The real context of Matthew 23 finds Jesus busy condemning the wickedness of the scribes and Pharisees. Notice even in the midst of their evil he doesn’t suggest a completely new form of spiritual/ministerial government.

These men were busy usurping the legitimate authority represented by the chair of Moses (Matthew 23:1) and denying it by virtue of their behavior. They arrogantly assumed the position of spiritual fathers but manifestly betrayed it by their own actions as the chapter details. Jesus here is doing the typical rabbinical thing and exaggerating–much like he didn’t encourage people to chop off their hands or poke out their eyes (Matt. 5:29-30) but rather very much wanted to see real heart-felt obedience to the law.

How do we know this? Jesus had no issue calling someone a father or teacher. Jesus regularly referred people to honor their fathers. He called Nicodemus a teacher of Israel (John 3:10). He called Abraham his father and the father of Israel and had no issue being called a rabbi under the right circumstances (John 3:2; 6:25; Mark 9:5). He spoke of the father of the prodigal son and spoke of Abraham also as father in another parable (cf. Luke 16). In fact, the word “father” is used so much in the New Testament it’s simply impossible to take this passage so woodenly except to ignore a whole host of passages. Stephen calls the high priest and the Sanhedrin brothers and fathers (Acts 7:2), men who assuredly didn’t deserve either title. He names Abraham as his father. He quotes Exodus 3:6 where God says he is the God of Moses’ father Abraham in his challenge in Acts 7. After insulting the high priest, Paul backs up and still calls him a ruler of the people–by quoting the Mosaic Law (Acts 23:5). Paul heals a father (Acts 28:8), calls Abraham “the father of us all” (Romans 4:11, 16), and refers to those under his spiritual care as children while he compares himself to or refers to himself as their father (1 Cor. 4:15; Phil. 2:22; 1 Thess. 2:11). Perhaps Paul’s use is the most relevant to the question here–it would be very strange for Paul to say these things if we take Jesus to mean there never should be any such a thing as ministers and ministerial father figures in the church.

But, there is more because relevant to the words of Jesus is his command for the people in Matthew 23 to continue to obey their leaders as far as they commanded faithfulness to the law of God and there is no sense that such an obligation was going to go disappear even though a transition was in process from the church being in Israel and going worldwide to the Gentiles. Jesus tells the people “all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds” (Matt. 23:3). So, whatever “tone” here Jesus is setting has very little to do with a supposed abandonment of normal local church ministry. Note that the words of Jesus are not merely to mature believers here but serves as a warning to those who might be tempted to be like the scribes and Pharisees.

And, what does the form of the nascent New Testament church display in its formation once it moves outside of Israel and into the Gentile world (ignoring for a moment the fact that the church has always had leaders and has existed since the beginning, Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 54)? Isolated passage like Matthew 23:8-12 ought to guide mature believers in abandoning the church is surely special pleading of no small design when lots of passages can be pointed out that say things directly opposed to Bojidar’s contentions.

Passages like Titus 2 are impossibly conceived without a local church community involved and the commands for mature believers are clearly to be selfless models and examples for others in addition to whatever formal office they might hold. Paul commanded elders in Crete for the entire population and in every town (Titus 1:5) even while requesting that elders be pulled from the population itself. Hebrews 13:7, 17 tells the Christian community to obey their leaders and imitate their conduct in the faith and directly says that elders are responsible to God for their spiritual care. How is it possible to obey that command without a connection to leaders at all?

An additional problem attends Bojidar’s position. If the mature have no obligation to be a part of the local church and serve since the design is to let them be free and unburdened by the local church, then why have qualifications for elders or pastors in the Scriptures? Where would elders come from in a church if there is no local church leadership to aspire to and be had? I simply don’t see the model Bojidar proposes in the Scriptures themselves.

It is quite clear as any good history will provide (cf. Burtchaell, James. From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities. Cambridge University Press, 2004) that the New Testament churches originally designed their polity after the first century synagogue and only departed from its model as the church moved away from a unique Jewish identity and into a Gentile world. But, the amazing thing is that the authority of the church from Jewish to Gentile eras in the church actually resulted in church offices becoming more authoritative rather than less. That speaks against any notion that the more mature option ought to be no obligation to the local church and complete freedom from any elder supervision.

The real truth is that from the time of the New Testament, as early as the Didache, in the early church and even in the canons of the ecumenical councils, and on through to the Middle Ages and later–itinerant ministers that had no real connection to local churches were in large part condemned and people were warned about them. The biblical evidence continues to demonstrate that Bojidar’s perspective is simply in error and that is no less true with Matthew 23:8-12.